Canine angels earn their wings at Belfast City Airport

By Aileen Moynagh

Image caption,
The dogs reach check-in at the airport

Eight special dogs have been treated with a trip to Belfast's George Best City Airport to help improve their already impressive list of skills.

They're not your average men's best friends, but medical alert dogs.

Strutting their stuff were seven golden retrievers training to be diabetes alert dogs and a Spanish water dog set to become an allergy alert dog.

They were given the opportunity to familiarise themselves with an airport and its surroundings.

The dogs, aged between one and two-and-a-half years old, were walked through every area of the airport, from check-in, through security and onto an aircraft.

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The dogs also made their way onto the runway

Diabetes alert dogs are trained to warn their owners when their blood sugar is low and if a hypo or hyper glycaemic episode is imminent.

This is important for owners who have lost their hypo-awareness and cannot feel an episode coming on.

Shortly after check-in, one of the dogs, Beau, did exactly as she was trained to do. She alerted her owner, Debbie Trimble, that her blood sugar level was low.

"I was sitting down. I wasn't feeling the best," said Debbie.

"She came over to me and put her paw on my knee several times and that was to let me know to check my blood sugars."

Image caption,
The visitors included a Spanish water dog training to become an allergy alert dog

Debbie hadn't been aware that there was such a thing as a diabetes alert dog until she saw an advert in a magazine. But it has changed her life.

"I live by myself and I have very unstable diabetes," she said.

"I was reading an advertisement in the Assisi animal sanctuary magazine saying that there are diabetic alert dogs available, so I applied and about a year-and-a half later I got Beau.

"Beau and I went into training together and now she is a fully fledged alert dog.

"She lets me know when my blood sugars are going low and will alert me to that before they get dangerously low and she's been a great companion to me."

Image caption,
The golden retrievers are learning to be diabetes alert dogs

Debbie said she finds flying stressful.

"Stress does tend to make my blood sugars go low, so to have a dog gives me extra confidence and would enable me to do things that I wouldn't do without her," she said.

Northern Ireland Assistance Dogs train and provide medical alert dogs to adults with medical conditions such as diabetes.

One of the trainers, Judith Byrne, said a medical alert dog helps give their owners more independence.

"It allows them to have a normal life," said Ms Byrne.

"Diabetes, especially type-1, is a very difficult condition to live with.

"It means they can have their holiday without worrying about 'am I going to go low'? Especially if they are used to having a dog around and that dog gives them that security."

Image caption,
The dogs were given the opportunity to familiarise themselves with an airport and its surroundings

Tuesday's exercise was a chance for the animals to learn about airports and air travel, intended to help them acclimatise to the processes involved with taking a flight.

"The dog's partners want to go on holidays, their condition goes with them on holiday so the dog needs to go with them on holiday," said Ms Byrne.

"It's a dry run; it familiarises the dog with everything that's happening, from checking in, to bags around the place, going through the machines at security, right through out on to the plane."

While many people may never have seen a medical alert dog on an aeroplane, Judith said it was becoming more common.

Image caption,
Medical alert dogs are becoming more common on planes

"Northern Ireland is a bit behind other places in that we're only starting to have assistance dogs here," she said.

"There have always been guide dogs but the other types of dogs are becoming more common here now.

The dogs are trained to alert their owner by nudging them in a way that would not be obtrusive - for example during a meeting.

Image caption,
The dogs went from check-in to disembarking

"They're trained to nudge the person's leg, then they'll use their paw if they don't get a response.

"Then they'll maybe jump on the person and then they'll bark and alert other people.

"With diabetes in particular, you can lose consciousness and it can be very, very dangerous to go low."

"There is no rhyme, there is no reason to why it happens," said Judith.

"It's stress.

"Even the stress of going on holiday, stress of going on a flight can cause a hypo."